6 tips on vacationing with kids

1. Stop calling it a vacation

I’ve heard it said that vacationing with kids is really just normal life picked up and put in a different location. And I would add with potentially more tantrums and tiredness. Parents included.

Despite all our hopes and dreams, kids do not hear the word vacation and decide to put their own needs aside for a few days so that their beloved mom and dad can get some rest and rejuvenation from all the hard work they do day in and day out. Yeah, pretty inconsiderate.

While changing the word “vacation” to something like “trip” clearly hasn’t and couldn’t change everything, it can definitely begin the work of eliminating the potential for so many unspoken assumptions and unmet expectations. Personally, it has helped me to see that my glamorized version of vacation is not the only way to have fun and to make memories. And that vacations can be reserved for my peaceful kids-out-of-the-house future, where I’m on a carefree cruise with no earthly idea of what time it is because there are zero schedules to keep (or arguing with my husband about directions to the resort, either way) instead of toting 7 large beach bags towards the water and yelling at small humans to stop complaining about the hot sand and hurry up because we don’t have long before nap time.

2. Give grace

Often as parents we shame or punish our kids for feeling the exact things we do, but dealing with them in their own child-like way. We resent them for not handling change and stress and overload in the very adult and mature ways that we ourselves are not even handling it all in. Family trips can be fun, but they can also bring on a lot of new emotions. And kids feelings are no exception to this.

My own mom reminds me faithfully, in word and in action, that mamatudes are contagious. We can think we are being silent and subtle, but our expressions and demeanor are potent and powerful. When we are snappy and stressed or anxious and insecure, it spreads. Knowing this reality can lead to a lot of pressure to appear perfect in front of our kids. So that our families then look perfect. Especially on what is supposed to be a care free family vacation. But the surprisingly freeing news is that there will never be a perfect trip enjoyed by perfect people. So instead of setting tense tones or plastering on a fake smile, we can acknowledge to our kids and spouses “we’re all feeling lots of things, and we all need to show each other extra understanding and grace right now. Mom needs it too.”

3. Chill out and let it be

I don’t know about you, but having someone tell me to “chill” is just about the surest way to make me throw off every last chill that was still hanging on. But finding ways to whisper to myself that “it really is fine” is often that small but vital shift in perspective that I need. While life doesn’t stop when you leave town for a getaway with your family, it undoubtedly looks different. Life outside of our home, or town, is never going to look exactly like life inside of it does. It sounds obvious but I think we forget that. I know I do. Things are just simply going to look and feel and be, different.

Maybe recognizing that location change lends itself towards all sorts of other change will help us to relax a little. Maybe it will help us stop pushing against the inevitable. Maybe we will be prone to say yes a little more. To later nights and to sleeping in (or to waking up earlier to get going on the fun). To bigger feelings. To different screen time usage and more treat consumption. To risks. To stretching ourselves. Maybe we can restrict a little less and fudge a little more. Maybe we can prioritize fun over formality, for a short time.

We can take from trips what they have to offer each time. This time it may be adventure and laughter. Next time it could be quality time and growth. It might even give moments of rest and nuggets of rejuvenation. It could be utterly exhausting. Whatever it offers though, it’s a blip on the radar of a life filled with ruts and routines. We can learn to take it for what it is instead of projecting all of life onto it. Our kids aren’t ruined. Their teeth aren’t falling out. Their attitude isn’t locked in forever. Bed time isn’t eternally shot. We can chill out a little.

4. Don’t forgo all boundaries

While I’ve learned the importance of “loosening up” when traveling with kids, I’ve also equally learned the importance of setting and keeping clear limits. My own personality prefers a very slow transition from one thing to the next. I, to an annoying extent, get disjointed when I feel like I am abruptly throwing myself from one thing to the next. I crave time to mentally prepare before something and time to decompress/debrief after something. My husband has to lovingly remind me to die small deaths to myself by being more ready and flexible. But, we’ve also together learned the importance of “naming what matters” to us before we go into any given situation. Especially big ones. Like family trips. To verbalize our expectations, our hesitations, and our goals. Even as simple or silly as they might be sometimes.

I think we all need this sort of prep-work to some extent. Especially kids. They need to be told explicitly what is expected of them and reminded plainly what will happen if they do not meet that expectation. We have found that it works best for us all when we set some sort of rule or requirement and follow up with some sort of if/then statement. As in, “if you choose not to show gratefulness while we’re at the water park today then you will sit out for a while.” Etc.

Family trips should have a noticeable separation from normal life but they cannot be totally divorced from it. We have seen that when kids lose all sense of boundaries they lose a sense of safety and stability. And that they actually deep down crave it. Even during, and maybe especially during, the most unordinary times.

5. Check in with each other

Each trip has its own pace and so sometimes regrouping as a family just means turning natural down-time moments into more intentional ones together. Other times though, it takes creatively carving time out of a busy day to separate from other people or activities and check in with yourselves.

As our kids get older we have begun to see the touchy yet necessary balance of “sending out” and “reigning in.” Our kids want to feel independent and free, especially when they have new options of what to play with and who to sit beside. But they also need to be reminded who their home base is. And to have some sort of semblance of regrouping. That could be as small as asking them to run over and give you hugs or high fives. Or all praying together first thing in the morning or singing together last thing before bed. It could also be bigger, like sneaking away for a few hours as a family to make a memory. Or sitting across each other at a table and asking how everyone is doing and what each person is feeling. Checking in. Getting on the same page. Reunifying.

There are many ways to accomplish it, but I think the most important thing is communicating to our kids a family value that will prove to stand firm in the midst of everything else being out of whack: you belong. It will remind them that they are not just to behave like one of us, but that they belong as one of us. This is about reminding them where authority lies, but also who their main team is and always will be. In good times and in bad, whether they like it (or us) or not, we are each other’s. Given by God.

6. Enjoy yourself

As moms especially, I think it’s easy to be so busy trying to make everyone else happy that we forget that time away, whether in a cabin or on a boat or at an amusement park, is ours too. We, too, can adventure and rest and laugh and play. We can make and take time, too. We can allow ourselves to take a step away and breath or to take a step back and observe or to take a step in and experience.

We want to be able to look back at pictures of a happy mama. Not an exhausted one who was busy trying to force everyone else to smile. But one who couldn’t help but smile herself, as she chose to embrace and enjoy the chaotic and imperfect beauty that was all around her.

Our family, not so, vacation.

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